Dukkha and the Essence of Fatherhood

A few years ago I attended the funeral for the father of a good friend and colleague. My friend’s father had been an important public figure, serving as a Justice on the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. Many speakers at the service described his important contributions to civic life.

When my friend stood up to speak and remember her father, though, she talked about dinner. While her father held an important position, she noted, and worked almost fifty miles away (no small distance in Massachusetts traffic), he always came home for dinner. She described how he always seemed to make it to his children’s sporting and school events – and my friend has nine brothers and sisters. I came away that day and in the years since thinking a lot about his example, about the effort he had made in his life to be present for his children and family.

Days like today, I feel like I have utterly failed to live up to that example. My son has a t-ball game tonight. But here I am, at work, waiting for a meeting. Not there.

Again.

I’ll arrive home later and find him asleep, his glove tossed aside on the front porch, his uniform crumpled in the dirty clothes hamper. In the morning, I will ask him how his game was, but I will feel a certain emptiness when I do. Then I will drive off to work as he pours cereal at the kitchen table.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish I had made different choices, pursued a career that would allow me to be more present, to be home with my wife and children. But maybe this isn’t simply about my career choice. I am reminded of my friend’s father; he was a Justice on the state’s high court, after all.

So I wonder, what am I doing wrong?

There is a possibility that the answer to this question is quite simple: nothing. This nagging wish that my life were different is real. It is raw. It exemplifies the dukkha, or suffering, that Buddha taught comes from attachment and that characterizes so many moments of our lives. My impulse is to try and fix it, to take it away, to do something about it – and perhaps I still can make different choices in my life.

First, though, my Zen practice reminds me to meet myself right here and now. Zen reminds me of the possibility of sitting with this disappointment, this regret, with the wish to be something or be somewhere for my children that circumstances prevent.

Perhaps, in the end, this regret and disappointment are simply the essence of fatherhood.

Not every moment, surely. But right now, behind my desk, imagining my son reaching into his glove to throw the ball he just caught, his determined grin cast in a direction that I cannot see.

64 thoughts on “Dukkha and the Essence of Fatherhood

  1. Vajratantrika

    Thank you or sharing this important lesson about dukkha. I am a father as well. I have often wished I had more time with my son. When I do have time with him it brings me great joy, yet I know that even this is impermanent.

    Reply
    1. tac Post author

      It is a wonderful practice, fatherhood. My children teach me each day about our buddha nature. So glad you found something of meaning here, be well~

      Reply
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  3. Rio

    There are many things that we can’t change but in acknowledging them we don’t make them convoluted or contracted. I have three children. Learning to practice zazen has been so helpful. Thanks for sharing this!

    Reply
  4. Bill

    This definitely resonates with me. I was a workaholic absentee father and husband throughtout my kids’ childhoods. I provided very well for my family, but at great cost. A few years ago I finally mustered up the courage to quit my life-draining job. Now I work with my wife on our farm everyday. We don’t make much money, but my life is light years better than it was. If only I could get back those childhood years. As a friend of mine once told me, “Don’t wait too long.”

    Reply
  5. bert0001

    The other side … I have invested most of my spare time in my children. But there is another side. I have always been able, together with my spouse to provide food on the table, but there are some months when it is difficult to make ends meet. My grumpiness in those days, … well, even I don’t appreciate it. In the beginning life as a freelancer seemed the right approach to reach for a balance between family and enough income, but these days, such is not appreciated on the workfloor. They like people who are always ready and always available. Technology allows for it. So I have become a second choice in freelance world …
    … and most of the time, in all those months when ends do meet appropriately, I love the freedom and the time available for family, but I simply wished for more balance and control of the budget 🙂

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Thank you for sharing your story, Bert, you sound like a wonderful, present father.

      Your story also exemplifies why I chose to write my own post from the perspective of dukkha. Lots of readers have made suggestions about how I could change my life to align with the wishes I express. I appreciate the compassion they express, and they are right – I could. Perhaps, even, I should. Yet it won’t change the basic essence of life. I would still want things in certain ways that they would not end up being. I would still like to infuse my relationship with my children with permanence, to never let them go. And yet I will have to. Dukkha.

      This isn’t defeatist or lacking the possibility of joy. The other post you commented on this morning (or this one, or others…) shows the real joy that can be and is present. It is simply a reminder to myself to be present, to recognize and welcome my life, whatever it brings.

      Thank you, Bert – I have been looking for a way to continue the dialogue with the many wonderful commenters, and you have provided me a way into that conversation. Be well~

      Reply
  6. inthebarberschair

    As a child therapist we always take the approach that each parent does the best job that they can.
    In a perfect world we would be able to proritise. But the financial demands on families now make work and home a difficult balance.
    Awareness is a gift, and you are aware.
    Empathy is another gift which is a quality that also comes across for your son.
    So try not to let guilt and shame eat you up, and good luck finding the balance that would ease your suffering.
    I shall be writing a peice on this subject @ inthebarberschair.
    Regards

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Thank you for visiting and your comment. That may well happen…or it may not…for there is a great deal we can change about our lives without altering its essential nature. It is that that I am learning to be with, with kindness. Be well~

      Reply
  7. Liz Rice-Sosne

    A wonderful article indeed. I came to your site to thank you for coming by. Then I was drawn to the word Dukkha. I was “oh boy” I wanted to make that this weekend but was unable to do so. But as I looked at the word it just didn’t seem right. Ha! Mine is dukka, something yummy to eat. I really enjoyed this. I have no regrets in my life. Everything is a lesson. I say turn that energy of regret into love. So, you can’t go to his game. Turn the energy of regret into a longer and tighter hug or a trip to the ice cream shop, just the two of you.

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Thank you for visiting and taking the time to share your thoughts – there is a lot of wisdom in what you say, I think. And hopefully you will have time for some dukka very soon… Be well~

      Reply
  8. smiller257

    Believe me, you can make the time to be at every event your child is a part of. I was A software entrepreneur for 13 years, working crazy hours, but I never missed a single game or school function my 2 boys were in. That sometimes meant working after I got home or burning the midnight oil, but I prioritized my kids at the top of my list. Since then, I have sold my business and retired but I talk with college age boys just about every day. You can do it!

    Reply
  9. devonchez

    Thank you for this… I am a father of two boys ( 3&4) as well as a college student, working, on dialysis and run/ own an event planning outfit. I don’t feel so alone.

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      We are all essentially alone yet never truly alone, being a part of this world together. Thank you for visiting and taking the time to share your thoughts. Be well~

      Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      It is a challenge, indeed. I remember being a discussion with my Zen teacher recently when I collapsed into the realization It is hard… Took me forty years to admit it, but I am so grateful.

      Thank you for visiting and for taking the time to share your thoughts, hope to see you again. Be well~

      Reply
  10. harulawordsthatserve

    A moving, thought provoking piece, as always, and many congratulations on the Freshly Pressed! Yes, we are faced with constant creative choices, in each moment. Personally I try to stay in awareness of the choices I still have and accept that the choices I have already made were the best I could make at the time. And I can not claim to be free of regret yet, but I try:-)

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Personally I try to stay in awareness of the choices I still have and accept that the choices I have already made were the best I could make at the time.

      It sounds like you are striking a good balance… I, too, would like to free of regret – though it seems to be part of everyday being for now. Perhaps that will change…perhaps not. So wonderful of you to stop by and read and take the time to comment. Be well~

      Reply
  11. brenda

    Although I try
    to hold the single thought
    of Buddha’s teaching in my heart,
    I cannot help but hear
    the many crickets’ voices calling as well. ~Izumi Shikibu

    Reply
  12. Hangman

    Most men would rather die than fail. You aren’t a bad father for choosing work over your son. As long as there is love between you, everything will be fine.

    At least, that’s the way I see it.

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Thank you for visiting and for your kind words. My first reaction is that the real struggle arises in that being work isn’t a choice, which is why it frustrates me. On the other hand, I have made so many choices that have brought me here… Interesting food for thought.

      As long as there is love…a beautiful sentiment. And everything will be fine – it really has no choice…

      Be well~

      Reply
  13. heavenhappens

    Your love of family comes through in every word you write and your child will feel that commitment and love even though you are not there for certain events. I brought up my 4 children as a single mum and had to work full time to support them. This obviously meant I was not always around but I think they knew I was doing it for them. Now they are all in their 30s or 40s and we are the best of friends, constantly in touch. They have travelled the world and settled in different countries. They say I gave them the confidence and freedom to travel and be whatever they wanted to be. I am so proud of them. I think you are setting your child a wonderful example of devotion, loyalty and dedication by working so hard for hime and the family. Believe me he will treasure this.

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      It is wonderful to hear your story – it sounds like your children were so blessed by your presence and continue to enjoy those blessings. I give you credit for doing so as a single mother; I don’t know what I would possibly do if I weren’t able to share this journey with my wife…

      I thank you for the gift of your presence and comment – I hope that we cross paths again. Be well~

      Reply
  14. dietrm

    As a dad with a career, I sympathize. I do pretty well with dinners and attending kid’s functions, but my record is far from perfect. As a therapist, I get the connection to dukkha. I am reminded of a saying I use occasionally with clienst: “Don’t just do something, stand there”

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      So true… I suppose that if perfection is the bar we set, we are much more likely to be disappointed. It will always be difficult to live up to our hopes for ourselves, even in our moments of greatest joy.

      Thank you for taking the time to visit and share your thoughts. Be well~

      Reply
  15. alienredqueen

    It’s weird. I am a SAHM and even though I am with my daughter all the time, I feel like I spend a lot of time “missing” what she’s doing. I’m on the computer, I’m doing chores, I’m watching TV. This is not to say I ignore her, but it’s hard to keep up a long and meaningful encounter with a three year old. Hubby says they need to learn to occupy themselves some of the time anyhow. I am trying to separate if this guilt is real, or a product of my own anxiety.

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      I have had a similar conversation with my wife about the time I need to take care of the house and complete other projects when I am home. She tells me it is important for the kids to see me doing those things, that they can still be with me or “occupy themselves”, as you say. And she’s probably right (she’s a wise woman…) Yet I still regret the fact that it might take weeks to read a small number of pages in the book my son got out of the library for us to read together, or not play that one more game my daughter might like… In the end, as I wrote, I think it is important to ask what we can do, but also important to simply sit with the disappointments that occur in our lives.

      Thank you so much for reading and your thoughtful comment. Be well~

      Reply
      1. alienredqueen

        And thank you as well. This is something that weighs heavily on my mind at times, but I sometimes feel helpless with it, as I am sort of a compulsive multitasker now. It’s like I’ve conditioned myself to not be able to enjoy doing nothing.

  16. scribblechic

    Your dinner, your time of presence, may very well exist in a practice that is unique to your family. Consciousness and commitment to family is present in every line of this sharing.

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      What a beautiful perspective, thank you so much for sharing it with me. I am so blessed that they are present for me as well… Thank you for stopping by, reading, and taking the time to comment. Be well~

      Reply
  17. segmation

    I am in a class right now at San Diego State and the teacher works for Channel 6. He told the class he has never missed a baseball game in his life that his kid played in. I thought to myself, this is impossible. He said he has his TV crew film every game. I wish I had my own TV crew! How about you.

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      I suppose I would take it…but I would rather be there. Makes it easier to get a high five or a hug at the end… Thank you for visiting and taking the time to comment today. Be well~

      Reply
  18. txm

    I think your friends father who passed away made it a priority to be home for dinner and stuck with it. If we all choose our priorities in life we can achieve it as well. A very nice piece you’ve written. I hope you’re able to spend more time with your family.

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      He certainly did make it a priority, and I have the greatest respect for him that he was able to follow through – it was that very simple (yet difficult) thing that meant so much to me friend. Thank you so much for the visit, for the compliment, and for sharing your thoughts. Be well~

      Reply
  19. katelon

    I love that you are even aware of not being there as much as you’d like to be. You sound very present and available. I had a Father who played catch with me, took me fishing etc. but was so walled off emotionally and so critical that I always ended up feeling like I wasn’t enough, wasn’t really loved by him. I feel that the best gift we can give our loved ones is to be truly present and available when we are with them. And sounds like you do a great job of that.

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      It is difficult not to be aware of it! I have changed over the years – motivation to excel in a career or to be recognized have faded, and the desire for the smaller moments with my wife and children have grown. It isn’t always easy to show the emotions that go with that, but I would say that writing has certainly helped me to do so and to be “present and available” as your describe.

      Thank you so much for the gift of your own thoughts. I wish you well and hope to cross paths again. Be well~

      Reply
      1. katelon

        I feel that often Fathers, and mothers, too, are driven away from their families in their quest to provide for them. Our world wide culture has created a kind of enslavement where working to survive and thrive takes so much of our time.

        I’m happy to hear that you are learning to find joy in the smaller moments and becoming more present and available to your family and also yourself.

        Blessings to you on your journey and evolution.

      2. bussokuseki Post author

        I’ve enjoyed your thoughtful comments and observations – thank you so much for sharing them and I hope we cross paths again. Be well~

  20. rami ungar the writer

    Plenty of people change their lives for the sake of their kids, even if it isn’t easy. My own father left a good job to move to a new town just so his kids could get a better education. I bet if you try, you can make the change you want to make.

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Thank you so much for visiting and taking the time ti share your thoughts – it sounds like you were blessed by your father’s presence.

      It is difficult. I could, perhaps make changes – but we can be trapped into thinking that our happiness is only one change away…when in fact it may lie in more graciously accepting what each moment has to offer, without reservations. So while the moment I wrote about was one of deep dissatisfaction, and while change will inevitably happen, that moment has been met and passed. To change and to accept. Essential struggle.

      Thank you for your presence here – it is a gift. Be well~

      Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, I am grateful. I really do believe, as you said, that our best truly is all we have to give… Thank you, be well~

      Reply
  21. fathersworkandfamily

    You’ve done the most important part- recognizing the issue.
    Now, you have to start doing something to have your actions more closely match your priorities. It is hard, and there are tradeoffs, and I’d be happy to talk through this stuff with you.

    Reply
  22. momasteblog

    I know all too well these feelings of “missing out.” My son was sick this week, and I had to leave him to go to work, which was really hard. I find, though, when I am able to accept and love my logistical, professional, and parental limitations that I make more of the moments that I do have. Here’s to hoping that you make the next game!

    Reply
  23. j.h. white

    Your friend’s father was of the (one) generation that had a certain American grace. It seemed to exemplify what we stood for as a country. Hard work, family, trust.
    I understand the complexity but If it were culturally true …I can’t see that we would be where we are as a country now.
    In most places on earth, I consider, choices are few. People do what they have to. Why should we be any different? Was this the hook?
    It was as I started asking myself these questions that I could find answers. We really are one planet with many faces.

    Reply
    1. bussokuseki Post author

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment and questions – I look forward to considering them more fully.

      It happens, it seems, that as you were commenting here, I was reading and commenting on your recent wonderful poem. We are indeed one with many faces…

      Reply

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